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Mad World

Paula Byrne's engaging ‘partial’ bio of Evelyn Waugh focuses on his relationship with the family who inspired "Brideshead Revisited."

By Heller McAlpin / March 29, 2010

Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead By Paula Byrne Harper 368 pp., $25.99

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A few years after publishing his most sentimental and autobiographical novel, “Brideshead Revisited,” in 1945, Evelyn Waugh satirized its plot in his prizewinning war trilogy, “Sword of Honour,” referring to it as “Shakespearian in its elaborate improbability.” The truth, however, as Paula Byrne makes vividly clear in Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead, is that the real story behind Waugh’s top-selling novel is even more fantastic than his fictionalized distillation.

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Byrne’s engaging book will resonate especially for those who fondly remember Granada Television’s consummate 1981 adaptation of “Brideshead Revisited,” featuring Jeremy Irons, Sir Laurence Olivier, Claire Bloom, and Sir John Gielgud.

“Mad World” is part of what Byrne flags as a growing 21st-century trend in literary biography toward the “partial life” – as opposed to “the heavily footnoted biographical doorstopper [which] had its heyday in the second half of the 20th century.” Freed from “the shackles of comprehensiveness,” biographers explore their subjects via a seminal theme, year, or event. The result, at least in this case, is more streamlined and focused, but still remarkably thorough.

Byrne, the author of “Perdita: The Literary, Theatrical, Scandalous Life of Mary Robinson” and “Jane Austen and the Theatre,” embarked on “Mad World” determined to correct what she considered to be Waugh’s persistent misrepresentation “as a snob and a curmudgeonly misanthropist.” She marshals friends’ testimonials and previously unpublished letters to resurrect both his literary and personal standing.
In the course of her research, Byrne realized that “his relationship with a single family: the Lygons of Madresfield ... provided a key that could unlock the door into Waugh’s inner world.”

Waugh, like the narrator pf “Brideshead,” Charles Ryder, was born into a middle-class family in 1903. His father worked in publishing. Both attended second-tier boarding schools, and then Oxford in the early 1920s on scholarship. Waugh was unhappy there until a friend introduced him to the Hypocrites, a drinking club whose elite members were high-spirited in every sense of the word.

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